When people find out I’m a writer, one of the first questions they ask is what tools I use to write with. For readers, I think there’s a natural curiosity about how the stories they read unfold, rather like the behind-the-scenes bonus features attached to movies these days. Other writers, I’ve noticed, sometimes have an almost talismanic sense about tools, as though somehow the right tool will magically enable them to reach the bestseller lists. I’m not one of those; I firmly believe each writer’s process is as unique as her writing, but seeing as how this is my blog, I have the privilege of talking about my favorite tools.
I’ve already touched on the tool I count on for planning, outlining, note taking, and idea farming: My Levenger Soul Skin with a Moleskine notebook tucked inside. When I’m actually writing the meat of my books and stories, though, I depend on another terrific tool: Scrivener, perhaps the best writing software I’ve ever used.
Scrivener is developed by the fine folks at Literature and Latte, and is made specifically for the needs of writers. The program started on the Mac, but my understanding is that Windows and Linux versions are in the works. Scrivener has tons of features, including many I rarely use (like a “cork board” view that displays the bits of your novel as index cards on a cork board), so I won’t make this an in-depth review of all of Scrivener’s features. If you’re interested in every last nuance, I invite you to check out the support resources and tutorials over on Literature and Latte’s site. Rather, I’m going to talk about how I use Scrivener, what works for me, and what I’ve learned from the process of moving one novel into Scrivener mid-stream and starting a second as a Scrivener document from its inception.
Talking about Scrivener makes more sense if you know what it looks like. So, here’s a Scrivener document open in the application (click for a larger view):
Scrivener works with “chunks” of material which can be easily rearranged and shuffled around. In this book, each scene is shown as a chunk and each chapter as a folder containing one or more scenes. Click on a folder and you can view all the scenes in it, as index cards, an outline, or strung together in a single document like Word. Scrivener also knows how to track different versions of your scenes (which it calls “snapshots”), so you can make a snapshot of a scene prior to undertaking revisions, secure in the knowledge you can go back if you don’t like the result.
In addition to the default folders Scrivener creates for your draft, I tend to add a few others to my documents:
To the Research folder I add folders for character notes, setting notes, revision notes, e-book cover images (Scrivener can export to Kindle and EPUB automatically) and so forth. In this book, I also had a folder for Journals, where I kept up a running chronological narrative of the writing. The journal is a technique I picked up from an article by Sue Grafton in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing. My journal is basically a place for me to “noodle” around the idea of my story – problems I’m thinking about, next steps, ideas, things I need to research, and so forth. (Sue has excerpts from some of her journals on her Web site.) For the book I’m working on currently, I’m maintaining the journal on paper, but the idea’s the same.
The Uncategorized Scenes is a lifesaver, and I owe its existence to David Hewson, who has written a terrific book about writing with Scrivener. Here’s the basic idea: Suppose you have an idea for a great scene, but you’re not sure where it’ll fit into your story. Or, suppose you write a scene, then realize it’s not needed right now. In either case, you want the scene out of your draft, but you’d like to keep it around in case you need it later. Just drop it into the Uncategorized Scenes folder, and it’ll be out of your way but easy to find if need it later.
Before I talk about my writing process, I have to mention one more killer scrivener feature: Full screen composition mode. One click, and all the distractions fade away, leaving you alone with your blank page ready for distraction-free writing:
What does my writing process look like?
- Planning - As I said, I’m doing most of the planning for my current novel on paper, but I am retyping character sketches, scene snippets, and such into Scrivener. I’m also dumping a lot of research material – mostly in PDF form, since Mac OS X deals so well with them – into the research area of the Scrivener document.
- Writing – As I said above, I usually use a folder per chapter, with one or more scenes inside of each folder. I create folders even if I know (or think) a chapter will only have one scene; revision is just much easier that way. My day-to-day work is almost all done in full-screen mode, because I’m much too easily distracted otherwise.
- Revising – All done in Scrivener. I make a snapshot of my whole document when the first draft is done, and I create new snapshots of each scene before revisions. I frequently refer back to my “revision notes” folder, in which i’ve collected critique comments from my fellow writers and beta readers, my own self-editing notes, and the like.
- Afterward - Scrivener excels at formatting documents to meet the needs of different markets, using its Compile feature. I use this all the time, compiling PDF and printed copies in different formats as needed. I also usually compile a Kindle version of my work-in-progress to put on my iPad – I find looking at the different view of my book helps with editing.
There’s lots of great stuff in Scrivener, and I highly encourage you to check it out. But for me, the full-screen mode is the most important feature of the bunch. I don’t get any work done playing with my computer, and Compose mode gets the software out of my way and just lets me write.
Scrivener for Mac is $45, a bargain at twice the price. The Windows and Linux versions are still in beta.